A question on the Nov. 2 ballot will ask Kansas voters whether the state constitution should be amended to ensure the right of people with mental illness to vote. Existing language in Article 5 Section 2 of the Kansas Constitution allows the Legislature to “exclude persons from voting because of mental illness or commitment to a jail or penal institution.”
Although legislators have never used the power to exclude a mentally ill person from voting, Amy Campbell of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition said the current Constitutional language likens the mentally ill to felons.
“I think it is absolutely a problem to have the state of Kansas which is one of the most forward thinking states in terms of treating the mentally ill within the community to have archaic and discriminatory language like this in our constitution,” Campbell said. “I think that’s definitely a problem.”
The legislation allowing the issue to go before voters sailed through the Kansas Legislature last winter with only one member opposing the measure.
Sen. Karin Brownlee (R-Olathe), who represents Gardner, Edgerton, Spring Hill and part of Olathe, cast the lone vote against putting the initiative on the ballot. However, she supports the language change to the Kansas Constitution.
When the legislation was put before the state Senate, there were two other potential amendments under consideration for the Nov. 2 ballot: a gun rights amendment, which appear on the ballot this fall (see story in Oct. 6 edition of The Gardner News), and a third amendment – the health care freedom amendment, which did not receive enough legislative support to make the ballot.
“There’s a potential for a great deal of reading that a voter would have to do at the ballot box, and I think that makes it less likely they would want to wade through that language and cast an informed vote,” Brownlee said. “But I certainly support it and think that it should pass.”
Brownlee also worried that the new language was creating a solution for a problem that didn’t exist.
The provision that allows the Legislature to exclude a mentally ill person from voting has never been used.
“(Legislators) just wouldn’t go down that road. We wouldn’t do that,” Brownlee said. “It didn’t seem as critical to remove that from the state constitution especially if there were other Constitutional Amendments coming forward.”
However, proponents of the Constitutional amendment say it’s easier and less costly for Kansans to eliminate the language than to defend a lawsuit down the road.
Campbell said the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that no Kansan would ever face the situation that their voting rights were restricted based on their mental illness.
When the language was written, mental illness was viewed differently than it is today, she said.
“At that time, the concept of mental illness was that anyone with a mental illness ended up in an institution,” Campbell said.
Today, the U.S. Surgeon General estimates that one in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. In Kansas that translates into more than 500,000 people with disorders that include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Article 5 was amended in 1974 to exclude the term “insane” and the term “mental illness” was inserted.
“I don’t think they considered at the time who that might impact in the future,” Campbell said.
Johnson County Mental Health will host a “Yes on 2” event from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 15 at the University of Kansas-Edwards Campus
Auditorium in Olathe. The mental health coalition hosts a campaign website at www.protectvotingrights.com.
Ballot Question No. 2
If enacted by Kansas voters, the measure would amend Section 2 of Article 5 of the Kansas Constitution to read as follows:
§ 2. Disqualification to vote. The legislature may, by law, exclude persons from voting because of commitment to a jail or penal institution. No person convicted of a felony under the laws of any state or of the United States, unless pardoned or restored to his civil rights, shall be qualified to vote.
The current text reads as follows:
The legislature may, by law, exclude persons from voting because of mental illness or commitment to a jail or penal institution. No person convicted of a felony under the laws of any state or of the United States, unless pardoned or restored to his civil rights, shall be qualified to vote.
A ‘YES’ vote on question 2 is a vote to change the state Constitution. A ‘NO’ vote retains the mentally-ill exclusion.